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The faces of civil rights

PBS profiles a slain youngster and an outspoken activist- organizer who changed the nation's history.

January 20, 2003|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

In different ways, Emmett Till and Bayard Rustin became key figures in the civil rights movement.

Till was a black teenager in the wrong place, the Mississippi Delta, at the wrong time, the summer of 1955. His slaying at the hands of two white men and their subsequent acquittal stunned the nation and, historians say, helped spark the civil rights movement in earnest.

Rustin, meanwhile, made a point of being at seemingly all the right places at the right times, from the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955 to the march on Washington in 1963, and beyond.

During his 60-year career as an activist, organizer and self-proclaimed "troublemaker," he formulated many of the strategies that propelled the civil rights movement.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, PBS is airing potent documentaries profiling Till and Rustin: "The Murder of Emmett Till," a one-hour "American Experience" presentation, and "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin," a 90-minute "P.O.V." show.

Till was 14, black and unschooled in the racial code of the South when he traveled from Chicago to visit relatives in the one-street town of Money, Miss. With adolescent bravado, he whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, at the grocery.

Two days later, two white men dragged Till from his bed in the wee hours, beat him and shot him in the head. His mangled body was later pulled from the Tallahatchie River.

At the urging of civil rights leaders, Till's mother told the mortician to leave the casket open at her son's funeral so the world could see what had been done to him.

Tens of thousands of people viewed Till's body at a Chicago church, and the story made international headlines.

Bryant's husband and another man were charged with the murder. Under the media's glare, however, white Mississippians closed ranks.

"Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men," the prosector told the all-white jury. Till's uncle identified the assailants in the courtroom, but the defendants were easily acquitted.

The reaction of palpable disgust led blacks and whites alike to more actively push for change.

The documentary, directed by Stanley Nelson and written by Marcia A. Smith, unfolds as a shocking mystery even though the outcome of the case is known from the start. How could such a crime have happened, and how could so many people react with disdain for the victim?

A European newspaper may have said it best at the time: "The life of a Negro in Mississippi is not worth a whistle."

Rustin, of course, was dedicated to the ideal that everyone's life was equally worthy. His belief in Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence drew King and other leaders to him, and he became the central strategist behind many of the watershed protests of the civil rights movement.

He also drew the attention of the U.S. government, as filmmakers Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer recount using eerie quotes from Rustin's FBI files that sound almost like parody. He was arrested 24 times over the years for civil disobedience.

With his genial wit and erudite speaking style, Rustin was a source of inspiration.

"We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers," Rustin said. "Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don't turn."

As a supporter of integration, he clashed rhetorically with the most militant blacks in the civil rights movement.

Ironically, the stigma of Rustin's open homosexuality forced him to stay largely in the background of the movement despite his influence -- marking him repeatedly as a "brother outsider."

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To see it

"The Murder of Emmett Till" airs tonight at 9, followed by "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin" at 10, both on KCET and KVCR.

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